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Rajiv Joseph's newest stripe

It was a tiny article in the back of a newspaper that first caught the attention of playwright Rajiv Joseph. An American soldier stationed in Baghdad reportedly killed a Bengal tiger at the local zoo after the animal maimed a colleague who was trying to feed it.

The tiger had bitten off the man's finger and then clawed his arm before the soldier shot it dead, according to the zoo manager.

The 200-word article, which ran in September 2003, has inspired Joseph to write an approximately 19,000-word play about the incident. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which opens Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, contains the scene described in the newspaper story, although the writer has changed the chewed-off finger to a severed hand.

There's no shortage of eye-averting moments in Joseph's play. Gunfire is plentiful, deaths are common and there's even an explicit scene between an Iraqi prostitute and an American soldier. But the play's dominant mood is philosophical, almost existential. In fact, Joseph said he wanted to create what may seem to some like a contradiction in terms -- an apolitical drama about Iraq.

"I don't really consider this a war play. The title depoliticizes it," he explained. "There are scenes that depict wartime conflict, but the play has to do with other themes."

Chief among those are the consequences of miscommunication and the persistence of traumatic memories. The play follows the relationship between a translator named Musa (Arian Moayed), a pair of American soldiers (Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer) and the ghost of the tiger (Kevin Tighe) that the latter two have killed.

"When I read the article, I was touched by the tiger's death in a way I couldn't locate. I thought it was a tragic thing, which was strange because there were far worse things going on at the time," the playwright said.

"Tiger" is currently riding a wave of positive buzz -- the playwright has won two grant awards for his work before it has even opened.

The drama took its first steps at the Lark Theatre Company in New York and has been workshopped extensively at theater organizations around the country. But the 34-year-old Joseph is leaving little to chance.

A few weeks before opening night, he was still rewriting and rearranging scenes, conferring with director Moisés Kaufman in a series of long post-rehearsal meetings.

The road to Baghdad is a creative minefield, and the team is making sure every tripwire is unearthed.

"I always have a hard time finding plays I want to direct but I recognized a new voice that was thrilling," said Kaufman, who was nominated for a 2009 Tony Award for his own play "33 Variations."

After a recent rehearsal at the Kirk Douglas, the playwright and director were huddled at a table discussing the final scene.

The ghost of Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday (Hrach Titizian), visits Musa and whispers evil thoughts into his ear. Gradually, other ghosts from the story take their place alongside them.

Kaufman was explaining to the playwright that the ghost of Uday should function as a seductive conscience, kind of like the Meryl Streep character does at the end of "The Devil Wears Prada."

The playwright responded that he still wasn't happy with the scene. "I always shied away from having everyone on stage at the end of the play," he said. "It almost looks like a musical number."

Scattered on the rehearsal room tables were a few nonfiction books on the Iraq conflict: "The Long Road Home" by Martha Raddatz, "Generation Kill" by Evan Wright and "The Devil's Double" by Latif Yahia (who once served as Uday's body double.)

But a more telling reference item was a DVD of the 2002 movie "Marooned in Iraq," directed by Bahman Ghobadi. The movie is a serio-comic tale set during the Iraq war that follows a Kurdish man and his two sons as they search for a missing family member.

"They're like the Three Stooges," explained Joseph. He said that the movie's incongruous sense of humor mixed with philosophical underpinnings was helping him write certain scenes of his play.

Despite a stint in the Peace Corps, most of Joseph's professional experience has been confined to the U.S. (He worked in the dot-com field before becoming a writer.) And even though passages of his play are spoken in Iraqi Arabic, he admits to not speaking a word of the language.

Born in Ohio, Joseph is of mixed heritage -- his father immigrated from India and his mother is of European descent. He turned to playwriting while pursuing a graduate degree at New York University, and his plays have been produced at small but respected companies like the Second Stage Theatre, the Cherry Lane Theatre (both in New York) and the Black Dahlia Theater in L.A.

Most of his dramas feature South Asian themes or characters. "The Leopard and the Fox" (2007) is about the 1977 overthrow of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan. "Huck and Holden" (2006) is a comedy that focuses on an Indian exchange student's encounter with two classic American novels.

The awards are mounting for Joseph. In October, "Tiger" received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its New Play Development Program. Joseph has also received a Kesselring Fellowship for emerging dramatists and the Paula Vogel Award for new playwrights given by New York's Vineyard Theatre.

All of which increases the pressure to impress the critics with "Tiger."

"I'm trying not to dwell too much on this being my biggest production and working with Moisés. The grant money has given us more time for rewrites, which is a blessing in disguise," Joseph said.

"Any fears about the ambition of this play had more to do with dramaturgy than politics. I've written a surreal story, so that allows me leeway as an artist to explore Iraq in my own way."

david.ng@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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